The History of GATT and the Current Crises in the Global Order

Francine McKenzie
Western University

Critics of the leadership and competence of the World Health Organization (WHO) during the Covid-19 pandemic have called for the fundamental reform of the organization. Before the pandemic, the dispute resolution body of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was under fire because its rulings were seen as unsound and over-reaching. These are serious criticisms, but they are not new.

All the major organizations in the UN-system have faced criticism and disgruntled members have periodically withheld funding, blocked proceedings, and threatened to quit.  Occasionally they have even followed through. The latest round of criticism raises doubts about whether these organizations can survive in their present form. Before we can assess the shortcomings of these international organizations or evaluate the effectiveness of proposals to reform them, we need to better understand their failures. The history of one organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO’s predecessor, can help us understand why the international organizations that are integral to the current global order invariably irritate members and disappoint expectations.

A lot has been written about GATT by political scientists, legal scholars, economists, historians, as well as officials and activists. But the organization itself is not well understood.  Part of the confusion stems from the volume that has been written about GATT, much of it inconsistent or even contradictory. GATT has been described as a regime, a contract, an inter-governmental treaty, a body of law, a club, a forum, and a consumers’ union. It has been characterized as apolitical, technical, obscure, informal, and ineffective. These definitions and descriptors are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they obscure the organization’s nature and operations. Contradictory assessments of its work and impact compound the problem. Some have criticized GATT as an instrument of American imperialism, an enemy of the environment, a levelling force that erases local cultures and national distinctiveness, and the cause of unemployment and individual suffering. But others claim it is ‘widely considered to have been one of the most successful – if not the most successful – of the postwar international economic organizations’[1] and ‘perhaps the most important and authoritative of all the current International Organizations and regimes’.[2]

Studies of GATT typically examine one of the eight rounds of trade negotiations conducted between 1947 and 1994. There’s a good reason behind this common approach.  Negotiations that lowered tariffs, and later on other kinds of barriers to trade, advanced the organization’s mandate to liberalize and increase international trade. In GATT and Global Order in the Postwar Era, I shift the focus to quotidian and behind-the-scenes institutional activities that expand our understanding of how the organization functioned and the relationship between member states and the secretariat. I also focus on the Cold War, the rise of regional trade blocs, development and agriculture to explore the ways in which trade and politics were interconnected and show how GATT itself was ‘entangled in politics’.[3] Digging deeply into the institutional history revises our understanding of the nature and workings of our current global order.

What does the history of GATT tell us about the operations of international organizations? GATT had a normative authority and the capacity for independent action, particularly under its more proactive directors general, Eric Wyndham White (1948-1968) and Arthur Dunkel (1980-1993). But it also acted with discretion and through its members to pre-empt a national sovereignty backlash. Because there were always skeptics who questioned the axioms of liberal trade, such as its universal relevance, GATT could not rest on its laurels. Its legitimacy had to be earned over and over. Although the secretariat was the most consistent champion of the organization and defended its internationalist mission, it was also motivated by concerns for its own institutional survival.

Why was GATT so often criticized? There were periodic celebrations of GATT’s achievements, but criticism was the norm. The most common complaints were that GATT fell short of its objectives and pressed its authority too far. This type of criticism was built into the UN-system. Following the Second World War, there were two dominant conceptions of global order: an internationalist conception that emphasized collective well-being, rules, and cooperation and a national conception in which nation states guided by the logic of national interests were the principal actors. Both approaches were impressed on the global order. They could work in tandem, but they also clashed. GATT’s challenge was not to defeat the national approach, but to find ways for the two visions to co-exist. As a result, the history of GATT was not just about seeking economic advantage but about achieving balance between the national and international approaches. The need for balance created specific challenges for GATT and helps explain why it, and other international organizations, have been criticized for being both too passive and too independent.

GATT’s history raises some important and timely questions about the importance of American leadership. Without a doubt, American leadership was necessary to bring GATT into existence, but its leadership was not consistently exercised or unchallenged thereafter. In fact, many countries stepped up as leaders at different times and on different issues: Canada and the EC lobbied for the creation of the WTO; Australia and the Cairns group pressed for the liberalization of trade in agriculture; Japan tried to curb the proliferation of regional trade agreements; and India, Nigeria, and Brazil insisted that trade must promote development. The history of GATT reveals multilateralism in action and shows that leadership was fluid and opportunistic.

Finally, the postwar trade order is often described as liberal, but a close look at the history of GATT confirms that it was deeply conservative that upheld hierarchies and prejudices of the past, including racial prejudice. Such views were not often openly acknowledged, but they were behind efforts to block officials from developing countries taking on leadership roles in GATT – such as chairing the annual meeting of contracting parties in the 1950s. When an experienced Indian official, L. K. Jha, sought out this role, Western officials tried to persuade a ‘confirmed GATT man’[4] from Canada, Belgium and Australia to take the post, urging them to do so for ‘GATT’s well-being’.[5] Furthermore, developing countries often complained that they did not benefit fully from rounds of trade negotiations, but these complaints were dismissed as coming from countries that were ill-suited to the organization, free riders and troublemakers. A post-colonial vision of global order ran through GATT’s history, challenging the internationalist and nationalist approaches. Despite their marginalization in and frustration with GATT, developing countries remained committed to the organization and their membership reinforced its legitimacy.

The past is not a clear guide to the future, but GATT and its history are a good illustration of the limits and possibilities that define what international organizations can and cannot do, expose assumptions and attitudes that inform what we see as natural or necessary in the structure and operations of global order, and reveal the tensions that are built into the global order and that continue to play out today.

[1] R. Blackhurst, ‘The Role of the Director-General and the Secretariat’ in A. Narlikar, M. Daunton and R. M. Stern, eds, The Oxford Handbook on the World Trade Organization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 149.

[2] D. Deese, World Trade Politics: Power, Principles, and Leadership (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 13.

[3] E. Roehrlich, ‘State of the Field Essay on the History of the UN and its Organizations’, H-Diplo Essay No. 153 (20 April 2018), 13,

[4] Canadian officials described a Belgian candidate this way.  Brussels to External, 10 May 1957, RG19: F-2/4205/8714-24-9 pt. 1, Library and Archives Canada.

[5] American officials made the case to a Canadian candidate in this way.  Memo prepared by Len Weiss, Re GATT Chairmanship, 17 May 1956, RG43: Box 286, file GATT Chairmanship 1956, National Archives and Records Administration.